Listen to the Music
“Mary’s song,” writes Richard Swanson, “establishes her as a resister” (page 70). The Magnificat is the first piece of testimony in the Lukan “hidden transcript.” But the Magnificat is not the first such song in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It is now regarded as beyond doubt that Mary’s song is modeled on and refers to the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2.
Karl Jacobson offers a good comparison between the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 and the Song of Mary in Luke 1 as part of his workingpreacher.org commentary. He lists the similarities between the two prophetic outbursts. Both Hannah and Mary exclaim their joy in their God. They both trust the promise that God acts on behalf of the lowly despite what we might expect. They both proclaim that what happens to them also is done through them for the whole people.
“Both Hannah and Mary sing a song that can be, should be, our song in this Advent season,” Jacobson writes. “As we have prepared for the coming of the Christ Child, now we too can sing in thanksgiving, in celebration, in remembrance, and in proclamation of the promise made to our ancestors. Like Hannah, and Mary, and Elizabeth too,” he concludes, “this is the time for us to indulge in unadulterated, celebratory joy in the promises that come to us in Jesus. Let us raise our voices in a great cry, magnifying our God.”
The Lukan author uses the Song of Hannah as a model, a template, a pattern, and a source of vocabulary for the Magnificat. But Justo Gonzalez argues that the relationship is more than a kind of first-century homage or plagiarism. He urges us to see the relationship as one of typology rather than mere template.
Reading texts in Hebrew scripture as typology is as old as the Jesus movement. Paul relies on typology in several of his letters. The early Church theologians relied heavily on typology as a method of interpretation. Gonzalez quotes Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, eighty years after the Lukan author wrote: “Sometimes, by action of the Holy Spirit, something took place that was clearly a type of the future. But at other times the Spirit spoke in words about what was to happen, as if it were present or past” (Kindle Location 534).
The “words” Justin mentions are what we would call spoken prophecies. There are certainly such “words” in both the Song of Hannah and the Magnificat. Mary, in particular, speaks of things as already accomplished which have yet to take place in their fullness. The “type” that Justin notes is not the words of the writer but rather the event itself about which the writer speaks. “Both point to the future,” Gonzalez notes, “but in one case what points to the future is the text itself, and in the other it is the event of which the text speaks” (Kindle Location 538).
The Lukan author wants us to see the Song of Hannah not merely as an earlier example but rather as an interpretive frame of reference for understanding the Magnificat. The point of typology is that this is always how God works. We’re not dealing with mere historical contingencies but rather with the deeper structure and unfolding of God’s plan in and through history.
In addition, the latter member of the typology (in this case, the Magnificat) is really the fulfillment of the previous member of the typology. It’s not that somehow the Song of Hannah “predicts” the Magnificat and its content. No, it’s not that kind of fulfillment. What we mean here is that what the Song of Hannah hinted at through the history of Israel comes to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Kin(g)dom of God through him. It is “fulfillment” in the sense of filling to fullest, bringing to flower, ready for harvest.
This is why, when the Lukan author makes references to texts and events in the Hebrew scriptures, the Lukan author always improves upon and even excels beyond the previous “models.” This isn’t a way to show off for the audience. Instead, this is a literary way to demonstrate that Jesus and his movement are the culmination of that path and plan that have been in action from the beginning.
It’s not only the Lukan author who sees things this way. Think about the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2). It is not that the previous witness was wrong or superfluous. The argument is, rather, that it contained the seeds of what has now born fruit.
“What Luke is doing in borrowing from the Song of Hannah for the Magnificat,” Gonzalez writes, “is precisely this sort of typological interpretation” (Kindle Location 548). Karl Jacobson’s commentary does an excellent job of demonstrating the parallelisms between the two songs, so we don’t have to review that here. But we can say that Hannah is a “type” for Mary, and Samuel is a “type” for Jesus.
Gonzalez argues that the typology has the most to do with barren mothers who miraculously conceive a son. He is careful to assert, however, that the stories are about more than the reversal of infertility and the vindication of these women. “The significance of the story of these barren women is also in the child who is born to them,” he writes. “Their barrenness is the sign that God has intervened in history to permit the birth of this child. And the child is an essential element,” he concludes, “in the continuation of the people of God” (Kindle Locations 554-556).
The Lukan author builds on this theme by placing the stories of Elizabeth and Mary, John and Jesus, next to one another. John is the forerunner. Jesus is the fulfillment. Gonzalez says of Mary, “In the child born of her the long history of agents of God born of barren women comes to its culmination. Its meaning has been fulfilled” (Kindle Location 563).
I think there is even more going on in this typological relationship. Samuel will warn the people of Israel about the dangers awaiting them if they choose to have a king like the nations around them. Their children will be pressed into imperial service. Their wealth will be siphoned off by royal taxes and levies. They will be forced to fight wars of conquest rather than defense. They will be governed by the interests of empire rather than the interests of the home.
This is a description of life under the later reign of David and the reign of Solomon. It is an inventory of complaints that led to the fracturing of the Solomonic regime into northern and southern kingdoms. It is also a precise description of life in Galilee in the first century under imperial Roman rule.
The books of Samuel and Kings have “hidden transcripts of resistance” buried in the text. While Samuel at one point offers this pointed critique of monarchy, at another point he is portrayed as supporting the establishment of a monarchy. The history books in the Hebrew scriptures were originally composed and compiled as an apology for the monarchy. I would argue, however, that in ways both obvious and subtle, a critique of the monarchy can be found in those documents as well.
Does that sound like someone we know? Samuel fell short in his efforts to resist the establishment of what became an oppressive monarchy. Jesus takes on the powers behind all human oppression, takes in those powers on the cross, defeats them in the resurrection, and replaces them at the ascension. If one of the functions of typology is fulfillment of the type by the later edition, then Jesus is the definition of such fulfillment.
“In placing these words on the lips of Mary,” Gonzalez writes, “Luke is letting us know both that the story he is about to tell is the culmination of the history of Israel, and that this history—and certainly its culmination—is of a great reversal in which the lowly are made high, the high are brought low, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty, the last become first, and the least become the greatest” (Kindle Location 580).
Why does this matter to us as preachers? The mission of resistance, reversal, and resurrection has been the plan and path of God for as long as there have been paths and plans. We can see the pattern of that mission throughout the Scriptures if we have eyes open to see it. This plan and path are not new inventions, not accommodations to culture, not new political or social fads. This is the music of creation, and we get to hear some of its songs.
There is a caveat we must always remember. We dare not engage in triumphalism or supersessionism. The Christian gospel does not “replace” what came before it. We do not appropriate Hebrew texts as “ours” now receiving the “right” interpretation. Our Jewish forebears and siblings have come to this place ahead of us and have much to teach us. We can only respond with gratitude and respect, with partnership and appreciation. Any other approach dangerously misses the point.
References and Resources
Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.
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